I suffer from panic attacks.
Do you know what these are? They are different for everyone, but the main thing to keep in mind is that you are, in all manner of the phrase, attacked by panic. Panic is an innate app our animal brain taps when danger is happening to us. This could be physical danger, like your heart rate increasing rapidly when you’re about to get into a fight. The same response may happen when you’re on a roller coaster and reaching the epoch of track before the great drop. Panic can activate when we’re under abuse, too, when we’re talked down to too much, or when we don’t feel important. Why would something like not feeling important instigate panic? It’s not life threatening, is it?
In the old, old times it may have been. Back before smart phones, and even before the plow and the carriage, if you were ridiculed it was probably because you didn’t fit the norm of your tribe. Maybe you were deformed, behaved too differently, or something else that was perceived by the majority as diseased. You weren’t good for hunting, or building shelters, or you were sick and shouldn’t be around in case you infect others. Your tribe would push you away so that you wouldn’t damage the community as a whole, and you, fearing for your life, would have to fix the problems and stay part of the group, or leave it and live alone.
Panic sets our brains into rapid fire thought processing. “What do I do? Where do I go? How do I do it?” Those people that are calm under pressure are good at filtering these rapid thoughts, (or it’s a sign that they’re not too smart and simply don’t realize they’re in jeopardy). Panic allows us to react quickly.
But panic isn’t supposed to last too long because we act quickly, and hopefully rationally. Panic is supposed to last only as long as it takes to get out of the situation. On the contrary, panic attacks can last hours, days, and even weeks, even long after the initial flip is switched. My panic attacks cause me to lose my breath, lose my ability to speak, to think clearly, and it makes me overly sensitive- usually to words and criticisms, although sometimes to light and other outside stimuli, too.
I usually suffer from panic attacks when I’m low on energy or battling something psychological, like when I’ve been applying for jobs for two months and been shut down by everyone. No money, no prospects. I feel useless, depleted- and, if you think in terms of the old tribal model, this would make sense: no one needs me in society, so it’s very likely I’ll get kicked out completely, be left on my own, and might starve or get mauled. As funny as that sounds in the modern age, it’s actually where much modern stress comes from. When we don’t fight or flight, we get paralyzed in indecision, and that’s where many dangle in a panic attack.
As skills become more focused on technology and small trade, those middlemen lose traction. To put it another way, there’s more competition for jobs, and even things like dating websites exist so people can be more selective about who they date. The modern age is hyper selective. With more people in general, people are forced to work harder to stand out of the crowd and stay individual, and yet if we go too far into the realm of individuality we’re also at risk of being ostracized. In the modern era we have to balance in the middle of anonymity and individuality. That, to say the least, is exhausting, and also, in the middle is where we panic!
That’s one reason we see more stress, anxiety, and depression than we used to.
When we’re at the end of our rope we reach the point of a breakdown. I’ll tell you about a recent event that spurred this topic:
A friend of mine was in a leadership role that she wasn’t sure she wanted. She had worked hard to get there and had spent a few years in the position trying to prove herself worthy. She worked long hours, long weeks, stepped out of her comfort zone, pushed herself, and made no more money because of it. On top of that, she managed to keep the company going, but it’s not like she brought it to new heights. In fact, it wasn’t doing well at all. She was easy to blame for it; she was in charge so shouldn’t she have made everything okay?
But she had tried, and she was out of ideas and low on energy. She felt like a huge failure. Worse yet, she kinda was a huge failure- and I only say this because I think that failure is usually an all right thing. It’s not going to destroy you, oftentimes. Instead, it helps you grow, to do better next time. Yet no one wants to fail, especially people that have worked hard. That’s why people don’t work hard, as there’s less room to fall when you fail.
As you may imagine, sitting in that failure spot caused her to panic. She worked even harder! More rapid thoughts, more rapid decisions. Make moves! Try more!
Why? Because otherwise she would show she wasn’t of use to the tribe and she might get kicked out.
Now, we all know this is preposterous. It’s a new millennium and we’re not kicking people out of our communities too much these days. But our animal brains haven’t caught up with that yet, still living in a base concept of what usefulness is, and the deeper she dove into the pit of hopeless battle for purpose, the harder each blow came.
Sometimes I’d talk to her and her eyes would twitch, like she wanted to start crying, and her voice would waiver, but she held it together, I think because she was the boss and felt that she had to. She refused to break down, and when I discussed the situation with others, our conclusion was that she needed to break, because she was so persistent that she held on and even at the end of her rope she held onto it by her sore, breaking pinky. It seemed she would hold onto that fraying, slick rope until we either pushed her off or cut the rope, and no one wanted to be responsible for either of those moves- thus, there she dangled.
A breakdown is more than okay. It is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered. A breakdown allows us to enter the grieving process. It allows our minds to slow down. The panic can snap like a brittle twig. Have you ever faced a tough choice and instead of making a decision you waited, paralyzed, and everything got worse until, without any reserves left, you forced yourself to decide something, not knowing if it was the best thing for you?
Didn’t you instantly feel better!?
After we get there, we then need to assess if this was indeed our best move, and if we fully make it we have to understand and accept the consequences, but at least now we’re able to because we’ve broken down. We’re no longer in fight or flight mode. We may have lost the battle- we didn’t flee or put up our fists. We were metaphorically devoured by the metaphorical Lion of Decision. It’s hard for our animal brains to realize that we’re not actually dead! We just got to start over from scratch, which can be very healthy for us.
A breakdown looks like failure. It smells like it, too. It may even be failure, but that’s not a bad thing, not if we accept it as a tool to start over. Let’s say you took two people hanging by their pinkies at the ends of their ropes. One decides to let go, only to find that the ground beneath them was about three feet away. They land on their feet and find the ladder to climb to the top of the rope again. The other person refused to quit, and that poor little pinky causes so much pain and anger.
Who is better off?
This is different than giving up. Giving up is dodging the rope altogether, or not trying to hold on at all, but rather sliding down it. (I’ll argue that giving up has its place, too, but that’s another story.) A breakdown is full of crying, weak muscles, childish whining, eating vats of ice cream and fried food, locking yourself away in your room to curl into a ball and feel sorry for yourself… And that all has the possibility of feeling really, really good.
The evolved human brain will always be at war with its primitive side. The best thing we can do is be mindful of why we’re behaving certain ways. A breakdown doesn’t have to be a total meltdown, but even that’s okay. Most people that have complete breakdowns, as scary and painful as they were to watch, are now rebuilding their lives better than before.
I say: break down! But only after you’ve given it a good go. When you can’t take it anymore, then don’t! Let go. I’ll bet you the ground is closer than you think.